Plaintiffs and defendants involved in high-profile hog nuisance lawsuits can speak more freely to the media now that a gag order has been lifted, according to a ruling issued today by US District Court Senior Judge Earl Britt.
On June 27, during the second trial, Britt had issued a gag order prohibiting parties involved in the lawsuits, including potential witnesses, from speaking to the media unless the issues were of public record, such as scheduling of hearings and court filings. According to today’s ruling, “after considering alternate solutions, such as jury sequestration, the court issued the order to protect the integrity of the trial process.”
The reason, Britt ruled at the time, was the potential for jurors, both present and future, to be tainted by trial publicity. Earlier in June, one juror had found media coverage of the NC Farm Act, legislation that ultimately all but eliminated the right to sue hog farms for nuisance. Smithfield attorneys had moved for a mistrial, but after Britt queried the jurors, he determined that they could deliberate the case without bias.
There was extensive publicity about the trial, not just from the media but also blogs and online commentary by the NC Pork Council and NC Farm Families, which advocates for Smithfield. The NC Department of Agriculture also held several “Stand Up for Farmers” rallies across from the Legislative Building.
From today’s ruling:
” … such publicity included press releases and information disseminated on various websites and blogs, including one registered to the subsidiary of defense counsel’s law firm; an article intimidating a potential witness through her Facebook feed; and public rallies. Further, likely as a result of the significant publicity, plaintiffs’ counsel received a direct threat by a member of the public via email, which the court referred for further investigation.”
Smithfield, the NC Pork Council and similar farming groups had complained that the gag order prevented them from countering criticisms lodged by environmental advocates and other parties not involved in the trial. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press also opposed the order on First Amendment grounds. On Aug. 9, the plaintiffs also filed a motion asking Britt to vacate the gag order. Britt also considered the fact that the next trial is not scheduled until November.